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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Aiken in your heart?

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  Genteel horse country life beats at murmur level

    Augusta National is hosting the Masters golf tournament this weekend, and the city of Augusta, GA, cannot accommodate all the players, their families and the thousands of spectators.  There is considerable spillover across the state line into South Carolina, much of it in the Aiken area.
    We visited Aiken and a few of its golf communities nearly two years ago and came away impressed with the town, the golf and, especially, the relatively reasonable prices for real estate; development in the area has accelerated since then, but you can still find a nice lot with a view of golf course and/or water starting at around $200,000.  For a small town, Aiken offers a range of golf-related options. You'll fine laid-back gentility with an accent on things equestrian at Mount Vintage, the convenience of a mall just outside the gate and three golf courses on site at Woodside, and a community that revels in its lack of pretension at Cedar Creek.  And for those who prefer buying home and golf separately, the combo of an old house in town with membership at the famed Donald Ross Palmetto Golf Club is a wonderful option.     

    Horses share the spotlight with golf in Aiken. Long before the first mashie was swung in America, wealthy Charlestonians seeking relief from summer heat and malaria fled to Aiken, their horses in tow.  The lures in the 19th Century, as they are today, were the fresh spring waters, rolling hillsides and pine-scented air that have increased the area's popularity as a second- and retirement-home destination.  If horseracing or polo or steeplechase get your heart racing, Aiken is worth a look.     

    The town itself is right of central casting for antebellum, with a main street that is both quaint and active at the same time.  Although the ubiquitous malls have popped up outside town, Aiken has enough cafes, small retail shops and other attractions to keep the sidewalks crowded.  We had a nice meal at Davor's in town, but the family-owned Malia's receives the highest praise of Aiken's eateries.      

    Although Aiken isn't exactly nightlife central, there is an eight-screen movie theatre in the area, a recently formed performing arts group and a small but active art museum.  A branch of the University of South Carolina offers a stimulating array of courses geared to adults (as a side note, USC-Aiken has one of the best golf teams among NCAA Division II schools).  Most social activity, however, seems centered at the clubhouses in the communities we visited.     

    Modern medical care is available at Aiken Regional, a 225-bed facility that is currently promoting a plan to provide private rooms only, and at four hospitals in the Augusta area, including the Medical College of Georgia.  All are within 30 minutes of Aiken's golf communities.  The nearest airport of any consequence is in Columbia, about an hour away, with daily service to such hubs as Washington (Dulles and Reagan National) and Charlotte.     

    The topography of the area is much as it was in the 19th Century. Hitchcock Woods, American's oldest "urban forest," spans 2,100 wooded acres inside the Aiken city limits. In keeping with such a tradition of land preservation, golf architects Tom Jackson, Bob Cupp, Rees Jones, Steve Nicklaus and Arthur Hills have taken great care in leaving the land substantially undisturbed by their designs. Tall pines frame most of the fairways.    

    Architectural review boards in the communities we visited are conservative, and indeed a few of the communities have "preferred" builder programs ("preferred" as in mandatory). The results are harmoniously coordinated housing, if not architecturally diverse.  Housing styles for the most part fit the antebellum nature of this part of the south; many bricks from the good red clay of the surrounding countryside buttress the homes of Aiken.     

    The following are notes on Mount Vintage Plantation, the area's most refined and highest-priced community.  We'll follow with notes on Woodside and Cedar Creek in the next two days.


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 Mount Vintage is open for play year round, and the framing makes up for a few cold days in winter. 

Mount Vintage makes horse sense to equestrians, golfers

    Mount Vintage Plantation is a 4,500-acre community 12 miles north of Augusta, Ga. It features rolling hills, many miles of fences and a challenging 27-hole Tom Jackson layout. No condominiums or villas intrude on the plantation's rolling hills and forests.  Home sites range from one-third-acre wooded tracts (for patio homes) to 17 acres to accommodate multiple horses.  Indeed, some front yards are actually horse pastures on the larger properties, but even those people who choose more modest acreage can board their horses at the plantation's well-outfitted equestrian center.

    Mount Vintage is named for the vines that once dotted the plantation. Two local business executives developed the upscale community, which opened in 2000, and they attracted a women's professional golf tournament to Mount Vintage's relatively remote location. When Japanese soft drink maker Asahi Ryokuken ended its sponsorship in 2004, no replacement was found. By then, however, Mount Vintage had gained a measure of prestige in the golfing world, and to this day, the Plantation's marketing materials still point to the tournament.    

    The course's original 18 sports a 147 slope and 74.5 rating from 7,107 yards, although it plays as short as 4,779 and from three other sets of tees in between. Designer Jackson has been given beautiful pieces of property to carve in the past -- the upstate South Carolina Cliffs at Glassy comes to mind -- and Mount Vintage is no exception. Five sets of tees temper distances, but they don't leaven the pain of high entry shots to greens guarded by traps and water. The course's Crenshaw Bent greens, underpinned by a sub-air system like the one at Augusta National, are true and fast. Initiation fees are $15,000, and dues of $440 per year cover not only golf membership but also other property owner costs, such as roving security, landscaping and maintenance of the common areas.  Jackson's third nine recently opened for play, and we look forward to giving it a try.

    Mount Vintage's town center includes an exercise room with modern Nautilus Nitro-Plus equipment, a large conference room suitable for family reunions or business meetings, and a general store selling "basics" (snacks, drinks, toiletries) and offering a small "lending library" of books contributed by members. Six illuminated Har-Tru courts are behind the clubhouse.        

    Residents seeking shopping or off-plantation entertainment must make at least a 30-minute round trip ride, although a big highway project promises quicker trips and many new retail stores in a few years. The nearest town, Edgefield, is within 10 minutes and is small and typically antebellum. Some hunters may know Edgefield as headquarters of the National Wild Turkey Foundation -- the bird, not the bourbon.  

    Mount Vintage is genteel, refined, remote and quiet -- an especially good choice if you are bringing your horse and your A-golf game, but not if you are looking for an active nightlife. For more information, contact on-site agent Geoff Wright at 888-271-3330.  The web site is www.mountvintage.com

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Larry Gavrich

This blog was conceived and is published by me, Larry Gavrich, a former corporate communications executive who founded HomeOnTheCourse, LLC, in 2005.  Our firm advises baby boomers and others seeking a lifestyle in which golf is a major component.  My wife Connie and I own a home in Connecticut (not on a golf course) and a condo at Pawleys Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC, on a Jack Nicklaus layout.  We began our search for our home on the course more than 15 years ago, and the challenges of the search inspired me to research golf communities and write objective reviews of them.

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